A visit to The Little White House in Key West, Florida, may seem a little like a visit home.
At least it might be if you grew up in the Midwest. And spent a lot of time at your grandparents’ house. Especially if your grandparents liked wall-to-wall gray wool carpeting, dark colonial-style furniture and the odd splash of color from a banana-leaf patterned davenport — or a loud Hawaiian bowling shirt.
“People go through this house today, and it’s an almost universal feeling, like, gee, this reminds me of my grandmother’s house, or this reminds me of the house I grew up in,” the late Miami historian Arva Moore Parks said in an interview with Florida Humanities in 1993. “This doesn’t look like a president’s house.”
But it was, at least for one president. And, since photos of the interior are still not allowed today for reasons of national security — in case another president might want to take up residence at The Little White House someday — it could be again.
“The Key West site has served as the functioning White House of President Harry Truman and has documented use by Presidents William Howard Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton,” among others, according to the Key West Harry Truman Foundation.
Truman was certainly here the most — trading the White House in Washington, D.C., for the little one in Key West for 175 days over 11 visits between 1946 and 1952 — and gave it its enduring Midwestern homey style. It remains the only presidential museum in Florida — and possibly the largest collection anywhere of plain and simple Truman-era furnishings (think, Henredon), bottom-shelf bourbon whiskey and one really loud presidential vacation shirt (preserved securely behind soundproof glass).
“Somebody said they were surprised how simple (the house) was,” Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, said in a 2016 interview on Key West. “It’s a nice house, it’s well kept, but it’s not fancy. And I think that was my grandfather. He liked things plain and simple.”
Our 33rd president came here after catching a cold one dreary Washington week in the second year of his presidency in 1946. His doctor suggested he take a vacation to some warm and secure place, and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz said the commandant’s quarters at the Key West Submarine Base just happened to be available.
“He still had the cold when he got here,” Daniel said. “(But) he woke up the first morning, and it was gone.” So began a regular series of working vacations here throughout Truman’s presidency — which included some security upgrades and renovations to the 1890-vintage structure after his reelection in 1948.
“He liked the weather, he liked the people (in Key West), he liked the relaxed atmosphere,” Daniel said. “He brought his staff with him, he brought reporters with him, they wore Hawaiian shirts, they played poker — it was a good rest for him.”
Thirty-minute tours of the two-story, 8,700-square-foot house today begin on “the south porch,” one of the upgrades added in 1949.
“You can probably see why he liked this room,” guide J.P. Bacle said, gathering a recent group of masked and social-distanced visitors around a poker table and nearby bar on the first stop of the tour. “I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.
“The poker table is made of four layers of solid Key West mahogany,” he said. “It has built-in chip holders, and recycled 3-inch brass shell casings for the ashtrays.”
The Trumans — Harry, first lady Bess and their daughter Margaret — were not smokers, he noted. But, in the ’40s and ’50s, everybody else was.
“Smoking indoors back then was all fine and good, nobody cared about that,” Bacle said. “What people did care about was gambling.”
The nightly poker games Truman convened with staff, reporters and Key West locals were hardly for high stakes — often just pennies a hand — but, “back in those days, gambling was a sin and also illegal in the state of Florida,” Bacle said. “So when they got finished playing every night, they placed this big round cover on top of the table, so no one else in America would find out what was going on.”
“Simpler times,” Bacle said, smiling. “Scandals have gotten a little better today.”
Truman’s days at The Little White House typically ended around 11 p.m. in the poker room — and began the next morning in the same room at the bar.
“What could be more Key West than that?” Bacle said. But, like your parents or grandparents in the Midwest might have said, Truman’s visits to the bar were strictly for medicinal purposes only.
“He had a heart condition called benign arrhythmia, so his doctor advised him to get on a good blood thinner,” Bacle said. “Now alcohol is a pretty good blood thinner, so with his morning orange juice he’d have a shot of Old Grand-Dad bourbon whiskey, which he called this ‘heart starter.’”
Say what you will about the president’s secret breakfast, Bacle said, “but the man lived to be 88 years old; and his wife, Bess — who lived to be 97 — liked it, too. I’m recommending nothing. I’m just simply stating the facts.”
Moving on from Truman’s favorite room, the tour wound through the first floor — past a photo of the USS Williamsburg, which doubled as a communication and support vessel for the president’s staff of 60 in Key West — and into the dining room, glistening with sterling silver service.
“It’s called the Admiral’s silver, and it was here before Truman came,” Bacle said. “Now Truman, he was a farm boy from Missouri, and all that silver was a little too much for him. So he took it outside for cookouts, for hamburgers and hot dogs.”
The tour moved upstairs next along wraparound porches to the first lady’s bedroom and the president’s bedroom and private desk. Since photographs are prohibited here, as previously mentioned for reasons of national security, I can’t go into too much detail about what I saw there. Suffice to say it involved four-poster twin-sized beds, with bedspreads and décor your grandparents in the Midwest would have recognized — and separate bedrooms.
(But the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence has a trove of historical photos on is website. The museum itself, closed because of COVID-19, is expected to reopen this summer.)
“There was one bed for Bess Truman, one bed for her daughter Margaret Truman (in the first lady’s bedroom),” Bacle confirmed. “Now the reason the first couple had different bedrooms was because that’s the way it was back then. Just in case someone had to wake up the president in the middle of the night, the first lady would not be disturbed.
“Well, in 1974, (first lady) Betty Ford moves in, and said ‘this is the dumbest idea ever,’” Bacle said. “So now the first couple, they can do whatever they want.”
The tour returned to the first floor down a narrow stairwell papered with Little White House wallpaper — featuring silhouettes of Dolly and James Madison (“It can be yours for about 400 bucks a roll,” Bacle said) — before reaching the living room, the biggest room in the house.
Sights along the way included a Hallet, Davis & Co. upright piano “Played by President Harry S. Truman while residing in Key West,” a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the correction of all corrections “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, a briefcase containing Truman’s cherished collection of classical records (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart), his hat and cane (which he carried stylishly, Bacle said, not because he needed one) and the aforementioned loud shirt behind glass in a closet.
“When he was in Key West, he liked to dress down and he would call a shirt like that his ‘Key West uniform,’” Bacle said. “And, if you could read the Mayan calendar, you could make sense of whatever is (printed) on that shirt.”
If it seems Truman was coming down to Key West generally to relax, drink whiskey in the morning, go out on Key lime pie crawls, throw loud shirt contests and play poker late into the night, well, yeah, that about covers it, Bacle confirmed. But the president also did some serious work here — once estimating he signed his name between 200 and 600 times a day. (Including, according to a marker in the front lawn, on a Civil Rights Executive Order requiring federal contractors to hire minorities, signed almost 70 years ago on Dec. 5, 1951.)
“I’m sure you all recognize the sign here (on his desk), ‘the Buck Stops Here,’” Bacle said. “Well, Harry Truman, he was not one for passing the buck. He was a president. He was a commander in chief. The buck stopped with him.” (The original sign is at the Truman Library & Museum.)
And he was just fine letting chips fall wherever they might, letting history judge his time as president, Bacle said. Even when his job approval rating plummeted to a historically low 22% after relieving Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command in 1951. Even as the Iron Curtain descended over Europe. Even when you take a really close look at that shirt behind glass upstairs in the closet at The Little White House.
“He said, let history judge me — and it’s been pretty good to him because in 2009, C-SPAN did a poll and ranked him number five of the greatest presidents of all time,” Bacle said. “Right behind Lincoln, Washington and both Roosevelts.
“That ain’t too bad for a farm boy from Missouri who never wanted to be the president in the first place,” he said, concluding with “the tour stops here.”
Truman’s stature has improved over the past 50 years, said David McCullough, whosr Pulitzer Prize winning biography of the president is among books on Truman in the museum’s gift shop racks.
“We see now that Harry Truman was a very important and effective and admirable president — a man who never wanted the job, never imagined he’d be in the job,” McCullough said in 2018 on The Washington Post’s Presidential Podcast. “He refused ever to take a fee for a speech after he left the White House, because he felt that would be a disgrace to the office of the presidency. He wouldn’t serve on any board because of that. He wouldn’t lobby by making a phone call for somebody for which he would be handsomely paid.
“It’s a sad thing that we’ve lost that kind of moral outlook and respect for the office itself,” McCullough said. “He wanted to live up to what the office called for.”
Even when it called for a loud shirt, and a little R&R away from the oval office at The Little White House in Key West.
If you go
Harry S. Truman The Little White House is at 111 Front St., Key West, Florida. 305-671-9199, trumanlittlewhitehouse.com.
Most popular question on the tour: “What are the holes in the floor?” They’re vents for the air conditioning, tour guide J.P. Bacle said, installed during a restoration in 1991.
Fun Presidential Fact No. 1: President Truman’s catchphrase, “The Buck Stops Here,” dates to the Old West, tour guide Bacle said. “When they played poker, they placed a buck knife in front of the dealer. If you did not want the responsibility of being the dealer, then you would ‘pass the buck.’”
Fun Presidential Fact No. 2: Should there be a period after the “S’’ in Harry S. Truman? Well, technically, no. Truman’s parents “gave him the middle initial S to honor and please his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young,” according to The Little White House’s official biography. “Since the S did not stand for a name, Harry didn’t use a period after it for most of his life. Soon after he was elected president, the editors of the Chicago Style Manual informed Truman that omitting a period after his middle initial was improper grammar and a bad example for America’s youth. From that moment on, the 33rd president signed his name Harry S. Truman or put all the letters in his name together as in HarrySTruman.”
The museum in February acquired one of the nine limousines Truman used during his presidency, a 1949 Lincoln Cosmopolitan with 32,000 miles on the odometer. The car, which had been based in New York City for Truman’s use, featured a then state-of-the-art privacy shield between the driver and the president operated by hydraulics, an intercom system and an airflow controller (long before air conditioning).
“We have been searching for a presidential limousine for over 10 years,” said Chris Belland, CEO of Historic Tours of America. “The … limousine is an amazing part of American history and now it will be kept here in Key West as a significant opportunity for The Little White House to tell the story of one of the greatest presidents in American history.” When it’s not being used for White Glove Tours of the museum, he said, the limo will be on display in Mallory Square.